By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun
5:11 PM EDT, March 27, 2013
Maryland's pit bulls remained in peril Wednesday as two legislators clashed over a lingering House-Senate impasse on a bill that would invalidate a court decision labeling the bill as inherently dangerous.
Del. Luiz R. S. Simmons took advantage of a House hearing on the Senate version of the bill to fire question after question at Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, over changes that panel made to a compromise the two Montgomery County Democrats struck early in this year's session.
Frosh and Simmons, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, had reached a deal on the question of how to deal with the issue of a dog owner's liability for bites to people. But a majority of Frosh's committee wouldn't go along with the deal, insisting on a stronger level of proof for owners to show they shouldn't be held at fault.
After the committee amended the House bill to raise that standard from "preponderance of the evidence" to "clear and convincing" proof, Simmons accused Frosh of reneging on the bargain and accused him of incompetence -- a breach of legislative decorum that brought a rebuke of Simmons from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
Wednesday's hearing gave Simmons the opportunity to confront Frosh face-to-face, and the delegate took advantage of it by conducting what amounted to a cross-examination rather than the usual deferential questioning of a fellow lawmaker.
But the soft-spoken Frosh gave little ground at Wednesday's hearing, saying the House acted first in changing the terms of the deal.
"You changed the bill we agreed to and so did the Senate," he said.
Frosh also insisted the difference between the two standards is not all that critical. Simmons insisted it was.
"It's short of reasonable doubt,' Frosh said. "It's simply more than preponderance."
"It definitely is a much higher standard," Simmons retorted, calling the Senate bill "something of a wolf in sheep's clothing."
Almost lost in the dispute was the fact the two men agree on the central objective of writing a law on dog bite liability rule that overturns last year's Court of Appeals ruling that singles out pit bulls as inherently more dangerous than other dogs. The court said that breed's owners and in some cases their landlords could be held to the legal test of "strict liability" -- offering virtually no defense except the bite victim's misconduct.
Before last year's court ruling, Maryland went by a common law standard -- sometimes called the "one-bite" rule -- under which a dog owner could escape liability unless a plaintiff could show the animal had previously displayed aggressive behavior. The court left that standard in place for breeds other than pit bulls.
Simmons warned that a strict liability test -- or a "clear and convincing" standard -- would cause insurance companies to raise their rates on homeowners' policies.
"People who own dogs may find it very difficult to get insurance or may not be able to get insurance at all," he said.
"You also have to help dog bite victims," Frosh said.
Tami Santelli, Maryland director for the Humane Society, said the ruling is already prompting some landlords to bar pit bull owners from their properties and some housing associations to write rules forbidding pit bull ownership. Animal advocates say the decision has forced some owners to choose between moving or turning their dogs in at shelters.
Alexandra Hughes, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Michael E. Busch, said her boss is aware of the impact the ruling is having.
"The speaker would like to see it resolved," she said.
After the hearing, the House stripped the Senate amendments from the bill. The matter is expected to be negotiated in a conference committee.
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